Saturday, November 30, 2013

Faith, Morality, Gambling, and the Poor

An article on the front page of the Post today highlighted a peculiarity here in the great state of Virginia.    We Vah-ginn-yuns are among the ever-shrinking cadre of states that do not permit casino gambling.  It's a motley little group, comprised of some peculiar bedfellows.  There's a cluster of Deeply Red states, mostly southern, in which the refusal to allow gambling stems mostly from religious conservatism.

There's a small cluster of Deeply Blue states, meaning Vermont, New Hampshire, and Hawaii, in which gambling is prohibited largely because it's not really an industry, but rather a great way to separate a sucker from his or her money.  It disproportionately impacts the poor, and is a fundamentally anti-progressive "industry." 

What struck me in the article were two things.  First, the story includes numerous quotes from the Democratic leader of the majority party in the Virginia State Senate, who views "gaming" as the sort of economic activity that would be good for the state.  That State Senator Dick Saslaw would be in support of gambling is at least consistent, as he's also been the primary proponent of the recent spread of car-title-lending businesses in Virginia.  Loan sharking and gambling?   Guess he never met a predatory business model he didn't like, although how this attitude flies with the Democratic primary voters in his putatively progressive congressional district is beyond me.

Second, I was struck by a flawed assumption in the Post's coverage.  The assumption was this:  There are people who oppose casino gambling for religious reasons, and then there are people who oppose casino gambling because of the impact it has on the poor.  These categories were presented as if they were different…but I don't think that they are.  Not at all.

Here, the flaw in the assumption seems rooted in the idea that faith and religious morality are solely individual things.  It's just about me and My Personal Relationship with My Lord and Savior ™, or so the idea goes.  From that perspective, you only don't gamble because it's morally weak and imprudent.  And, yeah, it is unwise, but that's not the whole of it.

Because Christian faith is not just personal wisdom.  It's fundamentally relational.  Meaning, it has to do not just with ourselves and our personal prosperity and spirituality, but is radically oriented towards the other. It is rooted in compassion, a deep awareness of the impacts of our actions on other beings.  From that compassion, you look at actions that are causing harm to others, and are compelled to speak and act against them.

For Christians of all ilks and political persuasions, care for those who are struggling is a fundamental moral and spiritual imperative. Actions and behaviors that generate profit at the expense of another are radically in opposition to the core value of Christian faith, and that becomes particularly and doubly true when it comes to the poor.  

As Pope Francis has recently and wonderfully declared, you can't parse out faith from the care for the poor, not if our faith is to have any integrity.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hospitality Paid Forward

He pulled up in a faded blue Taurus, just a few minutes past noon.  A tall guy, wearing well-worn coveralls, he marched purposefully across the gravel lot and towards the entrance of my office.

Ah, I thought.  I knew the conversation we were about to have, and I was not disappointed.

I welcomed him in, and he pulled up a chair, and was there any way I could help a man out, I mean, here it was, right before Thanksgiving and all.  I talked to him a little bit about the church, and about our support of a nearby food pantry.  But that wasn't what he wanted.

He was on the road, and just about out of gas, and needed to get to where his ex and his kids were.  Funny, how those cars always run out of gas right as they arrive at the church.  I've done this dance before, and know the steps.  So I told him, sure, I'd be happy to spot you a couple or three gallons of gas to help you get where you're going.  Cash I will not give, because that just as easily feeds demons, but gas?  Or food?  Yeah, that'll happen.

He smiled at that, and we shot the breeze for a while, about cars and life, about back problems and what an annoyance they are as you got older.  When the time came, I told him to meet me at the gas station on the corner, and I'd drop the gas in myself.  He offered me a ride, but it's just yards away, so I declined.

We met up there, and I put in a few gallons, enough to get him where he said he was going if  1) that Taurus gets the mileage I think it does and 2) he was actually going there.  He thanked me, we shook hands, wished each other a happy Thanksgiving, and he was off.  Likely to another church, if I know the drill.  Didn't stop me from wishing him well, and meaning it.

I'll often struggle with the purpose of church buildings, why we bother with them given what a pain in the tuchus they tend to be.  They can feel like energy sinks, distractions, and a bother...particularly if they're almost a hundred and ninety years old with an insulation R-value equivalent to a sky-clad Wiccan priestess at winter solstice.

But with Thanksgiving right on the edge of tomorrow, what was our old building doing?  It was a signpost.  It was a marker, a place set aside.  It provided an opportunity to give a little bit of welcome, a place where a stranger in need...and yeah, he was in need...could come and receive a little bit of hospitality.

And what is hospitality, but thanksgiving paid forward?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Macroeconomics, QE, and Other Things Not Preached

It was one of those Sundays when I'd got two competing sermons, both of which are vying for attention from my spirit.  Both played off of the same passage.  Both talked about justice, and both were grounded in Jeremiah.  But come Sunday morning, er, there can be only one.

So it seemed to make sense to bail on the one that involved macroeconomics.  Fascinating as it is to me, it was feeling like a bit of a bludgeon.  And I know that sermon time is nap time, but I try not to go there too often.

Still and all, I didn't want to lose those thoughts.

Because when it comes to the relationship between the powerful and the struggling, macroeconomics matters.

Every market index has been flying high lately, setting all time records.  DJIA, S&P, you name it, stocks are soaring.  But what does that mean, and why is it happening?

It means, as I have blogged before, nothing more and nothing less than this:  that the price of stocks in US dollars is rising.  Period.  If the price of milk was rising, or the price of gas was rising, or the price for a young family to buy a home was rising, well, that'd be bad news.  But when stocks go up, for some reason, this is a good thing.

Oh, it would be good, if a stock was rising because its subsector of the economy was booming.  It would be good if people were being hired in record numbers, and it was a time of plenty, and the value of corporate endeavor was the rising tide that was raising all boats.  Sometimes, that's what the market measures.  But not always.  It can also measure irrational exuberance, as Alan Greenspan once put it.  Human beings can go nutso over things, and get so caught up in crowd-assumptions of value that they'll pay ten years wages for a tulip bulb. 

Or sink their life's savings into the IPO of

Thing is, most folks aren't exuberant right now.  The real economy is not soaring.  It's stagnant.  Production is meh.  Employment is meh.  Nothing is happening, and certainly not enough to justify the riotous expansion of market value we've seen over the last five years.

Well, actually, that's not true.  Something is happening.  Quantitative Easing is happening. 

Eighty billion new dollars are being printed into the American economy every month.  It's part of the Federal Reserve's strategy to "jump start" the economy, and I've honestly always viewed it with a little skepticism.  Money is money, meaning it is not the real economy.  It is neither harvest nor product, but rather a part of the meta-economy, the game we play as we manage our culture.

And in that game, all that money being printed up every month, has to go somewhere.  It's not going into salaries, that's for sure.  The Fed's intrabank cap on interest rates means it is also not significantly driving up prices of commodities, and neither is it boosting the impact of savings.  It's like a balloon being inflated, while you constrict all but one portion of it.

And so where it's going is the market, driving market valuations to one record after another.  Remember, just a few short years ago, the DJIA was in the six-thousands.  It just cleared sixteen thousand.

What that is doing, though, is the challenge.  It is creating and deepening imbalance.  For those who have bought in to the market, to the investor class, it's a time of boom and plenty. The C-suite folks, already flush from the recent and explosive growth in their compensation packages, will benefit the most.  Meaning, this is a hell of a time to be rich.  It always is, of course.  It's good ta be da king.

I benefit also, as my mutual fund and investment reports tell me every quarter.  But my wellbeing is not the only thing I see.

For those who cannot buy in, those who are wage and salary only, those who are just getting by, it means that the great class divide grows all the wider.  The few profit, while the many fall further and further behind.

It is a remarkably anti-progressive turn of events, and the deep irony of it being continued by a putatively progressive administration should not be lost on anyone.

It will be, of course.  We're too distracted to notice how wildly things are falling out of balance.  It does not exist on our scale, on the scale of the day to day.

But though I cannot speak with Jeremiah's confidence, I am reasonably certain that God notices.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Like Holding God's Hand

When you bring kids up front in a worship service, it's a bit like opening your sanctuary to a band of foraging raccoons.

You never know exactly what's going to happen.  Things are going to be…interesting.  Time with Children is one of those peculiar things in the church, something fraught with liturgical peril for those who like services nice and neat and orderly.    But it can also be totally amazing.

I love it, the wildness of it.

What amazes me is just how often those encounters with our little ones force me to do some significant theological digging.  Like this last week, when at the end of the time with children, they circled up for prayer with the elder leading it…and she graciously included me in on the circle.  The two next to me in the circle are fast friends, and there was a very brief whispered debate about who would get to hold my hand.

"But I'm right next to him," said the one.

"I know, I know, but I want to hold his hand," said the other. "It's like holding God's hand."

They settled in quickly so that they could pray along in our little circle, too quickly for me to come up with anything insightful in return, but those words stuck with me as they scampered off following the prayer.

Like God's hand?  Me?  They're talking about me?  Gads.

Knowing myself, and knowing the frequently disheveled state of my soul, it was one of those convicting moments.  Too often, my spirit is like the sink in my kitchen, overflowing with pots and pans and crusty dishes that really should have been cleaned after dinner the night before.  But no sooner have I cleaned them, than suddenly that sink is full again.

Sort of like Camus' first swing at writing the Myth of Sisyphus, which if memory serves me involved dishes.  Or maybe it was laundry.  Or some combination of the two.

It can be a particular pastoral challenge, that expectation, that we are the conduit to the sacred. That can morph into the assumption that we are perfect, the Vessels of Truth, the very Voice and Hands of God.  It can be a seductive and dangerous thing for the human ego.

No matter how often we doth protest, that no, we are truly no different, it can be hard to get past the desire to see us as stand-ins for the Creator of the Universe.

Which, er, I'm not.  Yes, I do my best to help.  Yes, my vocation is guiding folks to deeper connection with our Maker, and I have disciplined myself to try to.  It's a path I myself still journey, and I appreciate the company I've found along the way.  But I don't want to confuse people into thinking that I am the Holy.  Ever.

And yet I also found myself thinking, as we sat for those few moments in prayer, that the strange weight placed on my soul by that dear little voice was a good weight.

Are we acting in such a way that our hands are serving God's purposes?  Are we speaking in a way that our voices proclaim both God's justice and God's gracious love?

It's the weight that pretty much everyone who follows the Nazarene should feel.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Tragedy and the Boundaries of Internet Parody

As I was researching and scanning the web for background on the sermon I ended up not preaching this week, I found myself wondering something.

With painful frequency, you will find someone making the claim that it was God's punishment on People X for having done Action Y.  The tsunami happened because God hates [fill in the thing you hate here.]  The earthquake destroyed Haiti because of Voodoo.  That sort of thing.

So I Googled "haiyan God punishment," just to see what I came up with.  Lo and behold, there it was.  There were links from news sources read in the Philippines, referencing an American Christian blogger who had made just such a statement. A blogger going by the name of Jim Solouki at a blog called Creation Science Study had asserted that because the Philippines were tolerant of homosexuality and immorality, God had punished them with the storm.

There was a small array of re-posts and re-links, some from Atheistic bloggers and news aggregators, splashing out the outrage and another terrible statement.  Sure, by a random blogger with traffic no better than mine, but still.  Look at what those terrible Christians are saying again!

I was all ready to parse out that theology, and resist it, but then I actually bothered reading the blog in question.  It did make those outrageous statements, sure.  And there were hundreds and hundreds of responses from anguished people with relatives in the Philippines, many of whom were faithful Christians, deploring what they felt was a complete betrayal of the essence of their faith.

But this is the internet, after all.  Here, truth and falsehood are on a level.  You check a source, and then you recheck it.

I looked around for any reference to Mr. "Solouki."  There was none.  I looked around for any information that might corroborate the identity of the blog or ground it in the real.  There was none.  And then I began to read it, looking for clues.

I've debated with literalists and fundamentalists, and I know what such folk sound like.  There are patterns of language and assumptions that they bring to bear with such consistency that sometimes they sound like the same person.

This blog did not capture that tone.  In fact, it sounded rather different.

Images used were often sexual in ways that Christian conservatives simply aren't gonna put out there.  Scripture was referenced, but only in passing and as a gloss.  Arguments were taken to the level of transparent absurdity.  Links to "faithful" sites were actually links to atheist comedians, or to churches that exist only as parody.

It was evident that this was…well…what atheists have come to call a "Poe."  Meaning, someone masquerading as a faithful person, in an effort to show that the thing they are pretending to be is inherently wackadoodle.

I know it is intended as humor, as a prank that illustrates absurdity.  Like the Onion, or the Borowitz Report, or the still-catches-out-my-friends Daily Currant.

I get parody.  In fact, I enjoy it.  But still, I wonder at what I read on "Jim Solouki's" blog.

Sure, good parody bears with it an awkwardness, toying around with the edges of discomfort.  But the greatest practitioners of prank and parody were best at skewering themselves, and bringing everyone else in on the joke.  That was certainly a potent part of the possibly-late Andy Kaufmann's peculiar genius.

If you're parodying something, and your parody fundamentally misrepresents the the thing you're mimicking, is it parody at all?  Sure, Christians are flawed, and often express themselves clumsily or offensively.  But if no-one from the Christian world resembles the image you're presenting, where's the humor in it?

And if you're the only one laughing, at a deep and real human tragedy, if you have brought no-one along for the ride, it is not funny or incisive.

It stops being meaningful satire, and becomes simple cruelty.   From this side of the equation, it feels culturally oblivious, more akin to watching a frat boy capering around in blackface on Halloween, convinced he's the very height of metahumor.

Sometimes, son, that ends up just making you look like the fool.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Greece v. Galloway: The Place of Public Prayer

As a pastor, I will happily pray when asked.  Want to start something with prayer?  I'm there  Unless it's a family dinner, when I'd really rather someone else do it. Because Daddy gets enough practice.

In worship, prayer is a core part of what I do.  It's a fundamental and irreducible part of the pastoral skill set, and a basic component of any faithful life.  It's as central to what we Jesus folk do in our lives together as meditation is to a Buddhist.

It's how I start my day, too, at least the days where I feel more centered and grace-filled.

I start pretty much every church meeting with prayer, because when you're deciding about your future, it's a good thing to remind yourself exactly why you're there in the first place.  But in those meetings, I'm aware that the purpose of the meeting, generally speaking, is not to listen to me praying. That doesn't make the prayer less necessary.  It becomes a marking: what we're doing is part of a sacred commitment.  And as Jesus so pointedly put it, we don't need to ramble on endlessly.  Keep it focused.  It's the vocal equivalent of ringing a bell, a bright tone that hangs in the air, marking a transition.

When I'm praying publicly and outside of the bounds of a service or church meeting, though, there are other things to think about.  I am usually aware of who is around me.  I'm aware of what will work, and what will be meaningful.

And that means, when I pray in mixed company, meaning a room that might include infidels, unbelievers, and other family and friends, I'm aware of how my prayer might sound in their ears.  Typically, in such circumstances, I'll pray the sort of prayer that, were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington sitting around the dinner table, they'd be able to say Amen.  On a good day, I might even be able to get a nod or a grunt out of Richard Dawkins.  OK, it would have to be a very good day.  But it's within the realm of possibility.

Meaning, I reach into my Enlightenment Deist toolbox, which is a subset of what I believe, and pray from that.

There are plenty of Christians who have a problem with that, or who struggle to figure out how that gets done authentically.

It's part of what's at play in one of the cases currently before the Supreme Court, as a township in which  prayers regularly begin public meetings has struggled with a legal challenge to that practice. I tend to think that in mixed company…as our nation is…it's better to go with a time for silent contemplation.  Seek the truth you know, and the common good, and meditate on it.

The township seems to have done everything reasonable to accommodate all belief systems, opening itself to Muslims and Buddhists and Wiccans.  If a humanist wanted to lead off with a secular reflection, they'd be welcome to do so.  I find it hard to see that as exclusionary or establishmentarian, by any rational definition of those terms.

But I find myself reflecting less on the legal merits, and more on how this impacts how Christians publicly speak.  if you find yourself in a place of public prayer, as I have on occasion, you can do it right, and you can do it wrong.  Here, I'm not thinking about the law, or about the Constitution.  Love this country as I do, it does not have my primary allegiance.  I'm thinking about the Gospel.  There are ways we can screw up the Great Commandment, and make the Gospel look brittle and unwelcoming, and we can do it publicly.

I know this more deeply than most pastors, because through a peculiar twist of the Lord's providence, my family is Jewish. My wife is. My kids are. I've been in places where prayers that closed them out have been offered, and I know…because they are my flesh and blood…what that feels like.

A few years back at a scouting gathering, an earnest youth pastor from a large nearby Jesus Warehouse offered up a sustained prayer to the gathered scouts in the name of Jesus, invoking the sacrifice of the Cross and the Blood of the Lamb.  I think, for those in the gathering who were already part of his community, the prayer probably sounded fine.  "It's just how we talk," they would say.

But it jarred not just my wife, but others in the gathering, because it did not establish a sacred space that the whole group could enter together.

A prayer that is ferociously and defiantly cast at a group from the collective in-group language of Christianity does not draw more people to the message of Jesus. It might feel good, to be up there, praying in the Blessed Name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ so that all Might Hear His Glorious Name, but what you're really doing when you do that is neither group prayer or evangelism.

Because they already know you're Christian. They do. What they don't know is why that's a good thing.

I know, I know, don't be ashamed about what you believe.  But honestly? It's equally important not to be foolish about it.  If the Paul had marched up Mars Hill in Athens and tried to hammer folks with the Unvarnished and Uncompromising Gospel Truth, he'd have failed.  Put him in Greece, and he knew what he had to do.  Paul knew how to speak to those who were different.  That didn't make him weak.  It made him an Apostle.

Christianity first spread because it was willing to articulate its transcendent truth cross-culturally, to express itself in terms that had nothing to do with groupspeak, and instead to find ways to be self-evidently good.

But we have to pray in the name of Jesus, folks will respond. If we don't, then we're not following Him!  That's just namby-pamby wishy-washy liberal relativism! To which I would ask, simply: When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, in the one great prayer of our faith, did he tell us to do so in his name? Or did he invoke our Maker, and then call us to humility and mutual forbearance?

When we find ourselves in a position to make public statements…particularly public sacred statements...that rise from our faith, there's no good reason for us not to find and use common language. Yes, there are other things you believe. But who will care to learn about them if your language is a closed door?

Friday, November 1, 2013

God Knows Your True Brand

I've been thinking more about the whole concept of branding and reality over the last few days, stirred by two separate but conceptually linked inputs.   The first came in the latest propaganda circular from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.  Here in DC, we get those every week or so, pitching out the party line through the "China Daily," which is inserted into local newspapers as if it were the Sports Section.

I read that Chinese propaganda in the same way I used to read English language versions of Pravda back in the 1980s, as a fascinating insight into the falseness of manipulative writing.  The article that struck me was a discussion of a study conducted for China's communist leadership by a US marketing firm.  Yes, you read that right.  Ours is a very strange world these days.

Here a mea culpa: I'd link to it, but China Daily's a twitchy website.  Things shift and change on Official Dot CH websites, and danged if I could find the "article."  I fear you'll have to trust me on this one.

The study revealed that China has a problem with "negative brand perception."  Meaning, Americans and Europeans perceive Chinese goods as of inferior quality, and associate them with oppressive working conditions.   Overcoming that perception, the marketing gurus suggested, is key to China's export success.  This is all about "perception," mind you.  Ahem.

That then played off of another story this week.  In Australia, the conservative government there has been coming down hard on US tobacco producers in an effort to reduce Australian lung and mouth cancer rates.  Now, in addition to the nasty, nasty warnings that cover the entirety of cigarette packs, recent Aussie legislation has mandated that cigarette packs use a drab, standardized font.  No more brand identity, beyond the megabrutal Aussie cancer-stick packaging.  

Tobacco producers, including US businesses and the government of Communist Cuba, have taken this as affront to the rights of brands to manage their own identity, and is resisting it in international courts.  How can we sell our product if we can't brand differentiate?  It's a violation of international treaties!  What right do you have to tell us who we are?

Here again, there's a peculiar partnership of marketers and that places the spin of branding over and above the reality that brand masks.

And I find myself thinking about corporations as persons, and just how existentially meaningless the concept of "branding" is.  Is a brand the reality of a corporate culture, representing the actuality of how that entity impacts the world?  Then it's a real thing.

But if it is not, if "brand" is simply an illusion cast to serve profit or power, then it is something else entirely.  It can be a false face, a mask that plays off of the manipulated fears and desires of those it encounters.

There are human persons like that, of course.  We know them.  They're the folks who are all image, all fluff and bluster.  All hat and no cattle, as my Texan ancestors would have put it.

As a Christian mystic, I tend to believe that those human beings have a difficult encounter with their Creator when the veil of our mortal subjectivity falls away.  God knows our true selves, the selves etched into the Real.  The lies we tell ourselves and others shatter against the reality that God knows and will share with us fully.  It is the most terrible thing about God, for we creatures who like to pretend we are other than we are.

And as it is with people and their projected identities, so it is with the brands of corporate "persons."  If the reality of a brand is injustice and oppression, or the reality of a brand is sickness and death?

Participating in those falsely cast images won't fly with our Maker, no matter how vigorously we spin and market and manipulate perceptions.

Lord, have mercy.